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What You DON'T See at the Airport: Behind the Scenes with an Aircraft Mechanic

Dear Rudy,

I'm writing in response to your recent interview with the airline mechanic. I'd like to elaborate on the explanation of what aircraft mechanics do. At major airports, there's a contingent of licensed technicians at the each airline's terminal who "turn" the planes. While the passengers are crowding the isles and pulling their golf clubs and a week's worth of luggage from the overheads, there's a lot going on outside. By the time the last person leaves the plane, a mechanic has already performed a thorough walk-around examination of the aircraft. Oil is added, tires and tire-change equipment (if needed) have been ordered, and any discrepancies are noted so they can be entered in the logbook.

Then, only after the passengers are gone, the mechanic enters the cockpit to talk with the crew and review the logbook. Perhaps the left ILS system displayed a flag on approach, or maybe the flap position indicator was lagging behind the flap setting command. Any of a thousand things that may have occurred during the flight must be corrected before the plane leaves the gate again. All these things are done according to FAA-mandated procedures the mechanic must know inside and out. It's HIS signature and license on the line when he signs off on a repair, NOT the airline's. In most cases, the plane leaves on time and nobody has a clue as to what it took to make that happen.

But this part of aircraft maintenance is only the tip of the iceberg. The real work is at maintenance bases. This is where mechanics perform detailed inspections, maintenance and repairs. It's also where planes are disassembled and put back together again every 18 months -- in addition to the daily, weekly and monthly inspections performed by federally licensed technicians.

The public, however, doesn't see any of the work we do. We're always at the other end of the airport. We are seen as the bumbling fool on a TV sitcom or the greasy overalled guy with a big wrench in Word War II documentaries. We are kept from the public view by design. The airlines want you to see only the freshly pressed uniforms of the pilots and flight attendants walking through the terminals. People don't think twice when a service manager tells you they have to keep your car for a day to fix a blinker. But when a flight is delayed 30 minutes because an airplane's #2 inertial navigation system has to be replaced, there's a riot. Aircraft maintenance is a 24/7 operation. It doesn't stop for holidays, bad weather or earthquakes.

Most mechanics love their jobs and do them well. But in the last few years, the compensation has been shrinking compared to the rest of working America. For example, your dealership car mechanic makes more than most licensed aircraft mechanics. Many schools that offer the training needed to qualify for a mechanic's license are closing. Why? People are not going into aircraft maintenance because there are many other more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. And frankly, the way things are going, I don't blame them.




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